No later than last night, I took part in the economic exchange known as bartering.
In the Japanese countryside, exchanging goods between neighbors or members of the same community is very common. People produce all sorts of products in their gardens. Exchanging fruits and vegetables with each other is a convenient way to prevent spoilage, diversify your food intake, and keep good relationships with others. “In Kamiyama, during the summer, the economy seems to be mostly barter-based,” Mr. Nakayama once told me, half-jokingly.
Similarly, last night, I bartered food against other food. I exchanged some extra hotpot I could not finish eating on my own for a kilo of frozen French fries. However, this did not happen in the Japanese countryside, but right in the middle of Tokyo. The reason is I am adept at the never-ending gift exchange practice with my neighbors.
Way before I lived in Japan, I had read in a book that it was customary to introduce yourself to your neighbors and give them a small gift when you move in. So, wanting to do things right (and probably motivated by the complex of trying to be a “good foreigner”), I have always done so. That is the start of my happy relationships with my neighbors. It took me a few years to realize that just a small gift does go a long way, but not for the reason I expected. “I was very surprised when you came to introduce yourself and gave me a gift the first time. To be honest, people in Tokyo do not do this anymore!” a neighbor once told me.
However, I should warn you that exchanging gifts is a never-ending process in Japan. If someone gives you something, you should provide them with a gift later. Then someday, they will give you something again, and here comes your turn once more. From my personal experience, this is not fast paced, but rather to each other’s convenience, so I never felt pressured.
One kind of gift to offer is the famous omiyage, the souvenir gift. When Japanese people travel somewhere or take holidays, it is customary to buy local gifts for friends and colleagues. These are usually food, not very expensive, and easy to find in souvenir shops, train stations, or airports.
However, I have noticed that gift exchange with neighbors is often about susowake, which means sharing a portion of what you have. “My friends who live in the countryside have sent me a lot of vegetables, and I cannot eat all of them. Here are some.” “My family has sent me way too many mandarins.” “Thank you for the hotpot! By the way, I got excited because there was a discount on French fries, but now, I realize I bought too much. Would you have some?” As you can see, this is not far from the countryside garden products barter and is convenient for both parties.
The gift exchange practice is also an excellent way not to be afraid to ask for help when needed. There is less hesitation to borrow a screwdriver or ask to water your plants when you are away for a few days. Each exchange creates a chance to socialize and keep the social harmony beloved by the Japanese. If you decide to do the same, you should know that the practice involves lengthy talks on mutual doorsteps!
Sometimes, things may not go as well as planned. Once, I went to introduce myself to the neighbor on the left, an extremely old woman. She looked at me, took my gift without a single word, and slammed the door to my face. Well, that was nice meeting you.
Nonetheless, it is very much worth trying. So, if you ever have the chance to try this somewhat outdated custom, I recommend you to. It may lead to good surprises. And some extra dessert.